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Parshat Mishpatim: Sealing the Deal by Yaakov Bieler

January 28, 2011 by  
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The Parasha contains the most famous statement of commitment to Tora observance in the Tora.

                The well-known response of the Jewish people to God’s Proposal that they enter into a covenant with Him, “Na’aseh VeNishma” (we will do and we will hear), appears at the end of Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot 24:7). Both Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni interpret the declaration to reflect  the people’s preparedness to fulfill all commandments that they have received to this point (Na’aseh), as well as any additional charges that God Will Give them in the future (Nishma—we will listen and accept any and all edicts that have as yet not been communicated to us.)

The problem of the multiplicity and therefore possible superfluity of this declaration.

                The biblical text relates that this type of declaration is vocalized by the people several times during the giving of the Tora at Sinai. Earlier, in Parashat Yitro, the people make a similar statement: (19:8) “And all of the people declared together and they said, ‘Na’aseh’…” And prior to verse 7 in Chapter 24, we find yet again, (v. 3) “…And the entire people declared in a single voice, ‘All of the things that HaShem Has Spoken ‘Na’aseh.’” Assuming that the Tora ordinarily strives to be concise in its language and description of events, we are challenged to account for this apparent redundancy within the text.

Detecting a progression rather than a repetition.

                A closer reading of what the people are responding to on each occasion sheds light on an apparent progression in the manner in which God’s Expectations are conveyed to the people, and their consequent reactions and verbal commitments. The first presentation to the people of the role God Wishes them to serve appears in Shemot 19:5-6. Moshe is instructed to convey to the Jews the following message: “And now, if you will surely listen to My Voice, and keep My Covenant, you will be a treasure to Me from amongst all the nations, since the entire earth belongs to Me. And you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” This iteration of God’s Proposal does not spell out any specific commandment or statute that has to be observed. It makes a general reference to the need to listen to God’s Instructions, but the primary emphasis is upon the special status that will be earned by the people once they accept upon themselves Divine Service. The verse leading up to the second time the people say “Na’aseh” suggests that on this occasion, Moshe is far more specific when describing God’s Requirements. (24:3) “And Moshe came and told the people ALL of the words of God and ALL the laws…” Finally, what precipitates the ultimate “Na’aseh VeNishma” affirmation is the writing and public reading of the Words of HaShem: (24:4) “And Moshe wrote ALL of the words of HaShem…” (24:7)”And he took Sefer HaBrit (the Book of the Covenant) and he read in the ears of the people…” The verses convey how each time the Words of God are presented, it is done with ever-increasing specificity, allowing time for the people to consider the benefits that are being offered, as well as gradually increasing the comprehensive scope of the range and breadth of the lifestyle that God is Imposing upon them.

But exactly which Commandments were presented to the people by Moshe at Sinai prior to their declaring “Na’aseh VeNishma”?

However, while the verses provide a general idea of the manner in which the Divine Law was revealed to the people, we are not told which laws were actually cited. Assuming that the entire corpus of Jewish law was not reviewed at this point by Moshe,[1] [2] what sort of selection did he make, with or without God’s Authorization? 

What exactly was said and read by Moshe, and then finally accepted by the Jewish people, is debated among the commentators.[3]   

                RaShI opts to accept the Mechilta’s[4] contention that what was first discussed with the people in Chapter 19 were the seven Noachide commandments,[5] as well as the Commandments that Rabbinic tradition understands to have been presented at Mara (15:25). As for the contents of the Sefer HaBrit that Moshe writes and reads in Chapter 24, RaShI agrees with R. Yosi  BeRabbi Assi in the Mechilta, who contends that this was the Tora text from the beginning of Beraishit until the receiving of the Tora.[6]  

                Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni advocate that the material discussed in 24:3, written in 24:4, and read in 24:7, are the verses from Shemot 20:19 until 23:33, i.e. all of the Halachic material that follows the presentation of the Ten Commandments, found in Parashat Mishpatim.

                Rabbeinu Bachaye accepts an alternate view recorded in the Mechilta, that of Rabbi Yishmael. This Tanna maintains that the Sefer HaBrit that Moshe read to the Jews contained the contents of VaYikra 25-26, i.e., the laws of Shmitta (the Sabbatical Year), Yovel (the Jubilee Year), how to deal with Jewish slaves, as well as the blessings and curses that comprise the Tochecha (the powerful incentives and disincentives that appear at the end of Sefer VaYikra).

The greater implications of the views of the commentators concerning what it was that Moshe taught the people at this juncture.

                These three main perspectives with regard to what precipitated the response of “Na’aseh VeNishma” reflect very different educational approaches and emphases. 

RaShI’s view, which posits a combination of laws with Jewish history, assumes that while some commandments should be shared in order to allow the Jews to gain a sense of the type of behaviors that will be expected of them, commitment will be more strongly engendered by a sense of history, personal identity, and the numerous Divine Interventions and Revelations that led up to the Jews being redeemed from Egypt. It is as if Moshe said to the people, “If this is where we come from, and how God Has Helped us on so many occasions, then of course we ought to concretize this relationship and develop our peoplehood and worship of HaShem even more.”[7]

                Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni reflect the perspective that the type of social contract, for this is what makes up the bulk of Parashat Mishpatim, that God Envisions for His People is the key selling point of the entire Tora system. When the thrust of Judaism is presented with social justice as the ideal, and with the goal that all people are to be treated equitably and fairly, Jews, as well as potential converts will naturally be drawn to accept and live by such a code, in all of its present and future manifestations. Perhaps the laws in Parashat Mishpatim are particularly attractive to those who have just emerged from a society in which slavery and discrimination were rampant, and who are looking for an alternative that holds out the potential for the formation of an exemplary, truly just nation. 

                Rabbeinu Bachaye imagines that what is most important to the Jews who have just experienced the exodus from Egypt, are, on the one hand, the graphic and specific formulations of rewards and punishments associated with compliance and non-compliance with God’s Law, and on the other, the examples of Mitzvot that will be dependent upon living and cultivating the land of Israel—allowing it to lie fallow every seven years, declaring all produce that grows to be ownerless, the return of lands that have been sold to their original owners every 50 years, and the redemption and/or release of Jewish indentured slaves after they have rendered their requisite years of service or have had their debts retired. These particular laws share the common theme that God is the exclusive owner of all land and all people, an attractive conception to people who have just experienced harsh slavery themselves. However just as important as these laws and their underlying theological principles, is the delineation of the blessings and curses of the Tochecha. In Shemot 19:5, the people were promised a very esoteric reward, i.e., to be God’s Treasure. VaYikra 26 is graphic almost to a fault,[8] not only listing the tangible benefits, e.g., plentiful harvests and food, peace with one’s neighbors, the absence of predatory animals, and victory in battle, but also dire threats and potential terrors, e.g., disease, defeat in war, plagues of animals and insects, starvation, destruction of cities, and exile from the land. 

Reflecting upon the three collections of subject matter suggested by these classical commentators.

                So what would make the greatest impression on the Jewish people at Sinai—recounting Jewish history, a careful analysis of civil law and the imagining of the resultant society or an inventory of the consequences that either complying or not complying with the law will generate, once the people inhabit a land of their own? A case could be made for each of these approaches, resulting in the differing views in the Midrash and amongst the commentators.

                While what actually took place at Sinai could have been one of these three particular approaches, or perhaps another tack that has gone unimagined by our primary sources and interpreters, for the contemporary Jew who is not only concerned about his/her biblical history, but also what will engender meaningful commitment on his/her part today, it is important to focus upon and constantly return to each of these approaches. While some of us might be more attracted to only one of these varied dimensions of Jewish culture and tradition, it would appear that they all have a role to play in guaranteeing our ongoing appreciation for our religion and culture. And from a curricular perspective in terms of Jewish day schools, when one considers that at Sinai the aim was to influence the Jews to make a commitment to God and their people, we desire the same result for our children. Consequently it is important that their Jewish learning include elements designed to enhance and develop their Jewish identities, familiarize them with Jewish law and the philosophical conceptions that underlie it, and recognize that serious consequences can result from a way of life that is taken seriously and wholeheartedly.

[1] If forty days and nights were required for Moshe to be taught the entire corpus of the laws of the Tora (Devarim 9:9, 11), no comparable amount of time was devoted to the Commandments that were taught to the people, prior to their stating, “Na’aseh VeNishma.” Furthermore, if Moshe had not as yet received the Tora, then of which Mitzvot had God Given him previews so that he could share these “forthcoming attractions” with the people? Although we could assume that the seven Noachide Commandments were already known to the people (see fn. 5),  as well as the Commandments that according to Rabbinic tradition were initially presented to the Jews at Mara, based upon the phrase (Shemot 15:25) “Sham Sam Lo Chok U’Mishpat” (there He Presented to them statute and law” (Sanhedrin 56b—1) establishing law courts to constantly meet (as opposed to merely prevent criminal activity), 2) Shabbat, 3) Respecting parents,  and possibly 4) Ritual of the Red Heifer), while such Commandments might each represent greater groups of laws, and “Kol” (all) then would have to be understood as figurative rather than literal, one still would not know specifically which additional Commandments were presented to the people by Moshe prior to their commitment of observance.

[2]I have written elsewhere (“Three Models to Inspire the Objectives of Torah Instruction in the Modern Orthodox Day School”, in Ten Da’at, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall 1993, pp. 10-13.) that an apt analogy to the introduction of the Tora to the Jewish people at Sinai is the Talmudic description of the manner in which one educates a potential convert prior to his/her conversion:

Yevamot 47a

And one makes know to him (the potential convert) a few less severe Commandments and a few more severe Commandments (specifics are not mentioned), and one makes know to him the sins of Leket (VaYikra 23:22), Shikecha (Devarim 24:19),  Pe’ah (VaYikra 23:22) and Ma’aser Ani (Devarim 14:28-29). And one makes known to him the punishments of the Commandments. One says to him: You should know that before you came to this point, you ate Chelev and you were not culpable for ritual excision; you violated the laws of Shabbat and you were not culpable for stoning. And now, should you eat Chelev, you would be culpable for Karet; if you would violate Shabbat, you would be culpable for stoning. And just as one makes known to him the punishment of the Commandments, so too one makes known to him the rewards that are given (for compliance with them.) One says to him: You should know, that the World to Come is reserved for the righteous, and Israel today neither great goodness nor great punishment.

In addition to the specific mention of six Commandments  as well as the rewards and punishments associated with two of them, there are also general statements about “a few Commandments” of the more and less severe type without mentioning which—this probably indicates that there is no fixed curriculum, but that the teacher gauges where the candidate “is at” and teaches him accordingly. The information regarding rewards and punishments also is general rather than specific.

[3]According to the Talmudic metaphor appearing in Shabbat 88a and Avoda Zara 2b, in which God “suspended” Mt. Sinai over the people and threatened to drop it on them unless they accepted the Tora, it would appear that whatever was said to them leading up to their acquiescence was irrelevant. Even were one not to take the Aggada literally, it could be understood to suggest that as a result of all of the plagues and miracles that the people had witnessed, there was no way that they could refuse to go along with God’s Demands. But according to Jewish tradition, there are “seventy faces to the Tora”, i.e., there are varied and even contradictory approaches for understanding the Tora’s words, at least with respect to the portions of the biblical text that are devoted to stories, as opposed to the Tora’s legal passages. The concern of the biblical commentators to clarify what was said, written, and read suggests that from their perspective, that the presentation did make a difference, and that the people had to be won over before they would agree to become God’s Treasure, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.

[4]Midrash Halacha on Sefer Shemot.

[5]The seven Noachide commandments are listed in Sanhedrin 56a—The Rabbis taught: Seven commandments were commanded to the descendents of Noach—the establishment of law courts to assure order within society, and prohibitions against blasphemy, idolatry, sexual promiscuity, murder, thievery and removing the limb from a living animal. R. Yochanan claims that these seven laws are derived from Beraishit 2:16, implying that the laws preceded even Noach, and originated with the beginnings of human civilization.

[6]According to RaShI’s view with regard to the nature of the report that made Yitro decide to reunite Moshe with the rest of his family (RaShI on Shemot 18:1), i.e., that it was the accounts of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the war with Amalek, events that took place prior to the giving of the Tora at Sinai, then Chapter 18 would have been included in the material that Moshe wrote and read to the Jews. (According to those who maintain that the chapter discussing Yitro is out of order and in fact takes place following the giving of the Tora, this being the event that piqued his interest and drove him to seek out the encampment, then the Sefer HaBrit would conclude with Chapter 17.)

[7]The analogy between Sinai and conversion would break down in view of RaShI’s interpretation, because Jewish history would not be something that was able to be personalized by someone who originates from a different tradition. While RaMBaM in a famous letter tells R. Ovadia HaGer that he should say “Elokeinu V’Elokai Avotainu” in his prayers even though his forefathers most probably did not go through such a relationship with God, nevertheless at best this is symbolic rather than literal. Just because an individual becomes part of the Jewish people and shares their fate and destiny does not mean that they and/or their ancestors actually took part in or were witness to the events that have shaped the Jewish nation.

[8]The terrifying nature of the verses led to the custom for them to be read quietly and quickly. One of my teachers, R. Joseph Lookstein, Z”L, was fond of saying that it is for this reason that this section of the Tora should be read that much more slowly and loudly than any of the others, so that it can have maximum affect on those who are listening to the Tora reading!

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